Ingubo Yesizwe 2008
In this work, Hlobo has painstakingly stitched hundreds of small pieces of discarded leather and rubber into a large organic amphibian-like form. In the artist’s hands, the scrap materials take on a new life as a complex undulating body rising from the floor.
Hlobo’s extensive use of leather in this piece reflects the economic, social, political, and spiritual importance of cattle in Xhosa culture. Wealth is measured by the size of a man’s herd, and men are only able to marry once they have accumulated sufficient cattle to pay lobola (bride wealth) to their future father-in-laws. Significant moments in the life of the community – such as initiation or marriage – are marked by the slaughter of cattle. Even today, death is frequently accompanied by a ritual slaughter in the hope that this will prevent further misfortune. The cowhide is then used to cover the corpse before burial to protect the deceased as they enter the afterlife. Ingubo Yesizwe, which means ‘clothes or blanket of the nation’, refers to this ritual.
For generations, the Xhosa have been known as the ‘red blanket people’ because of their custom of wearing blankets dyed with red ochre and decorated with elaborate stitching and buttons. Ingubo Yesizwe implies protection, integration, and the potential for transformation, both of the materials Hlobo uses and the country he lives in.
The leather top, representing traditional Xhosa values and practices, and rubber bottom, signifying modernisation and urbanisation, are carefully integrated so that the beginning of one material and the end of the other is not easily discernible. The hulking form is like a wounded beast dragging itself forward, weighed down by its accoutrements, including a ball and claw foot - a reminder of the colonial past - and a long tail with bulbous growths. The underlying theme of vulnerability is emphasised by the ruptured belly, its innards spilling onto the floor, recalling the ceremonial slaughter of the cow and suggesting discord between the elements.
Visual Diary 2008
Hlobo’s visual diaries are an important part of his artistic practice. Hung on a wall running the full-length of his studio, these large pieces of fabric function as notebooks that document the progress of works from the first idea through to realisation. They include experiments, sewing patterns, diagrams and explanations to studio assistants, fabricators, curators, and other visitors to his studio. This Visual Diary chronicles the months leading up to this exhibition, including the development of Ingubo Yesizwe. Although used very freely, the visual diaries are intensely personal records of Hlobo’s artistic journey. His thought processes are only partly revealed, since much of the text is in Xhosa, a language that allows Hlobo to be expressive and private simultaneously.
There is a strong relationship between Hlobo’s sculptural installations and his meticulously constructed works on paper. Although the drawings tend to be more abstract, he employs the same techniques on paper that he uses with rubber or leather. The paper is cut and sewed together using his signature baseball stitch, which is not just decorative, but also very strong. The cuts in the paper are sharp and clean, determining where the ribbon sutures will be made and how they will overlap. The surfaces of the drawings are very controlled, defined by the shape and size of the paper, restricted in ways that his sculptures are not.
Phulaphulani means ‘to listen’, but it derives from the root phula, ‘to break’. To listen is to break down or process multiple sounds so that meaning can be understood and in turn passed on. An array of meandering colourful stitches penetrate the surface of the paper, sometimes clear, but also at points crossed, tangled and merged. The undulating lines resemble the telephone cord that connects a phone to a receiver. Metaphors of sound and listening are reinforced by the iPod earphones that have been stitched into this work; the earphones and the attached cable become simply another line.
Iminxeba is Hlobo’s largest work on paper to date. The title means ‘limbs of the vine’ or ‘grapevine’ referring to telephonic networks and other paths along which news or gossip travels. The stitches are denser and more chaotic, emanating from a piece of rubber that has been incorporated into a swooping cut at the bottom of the paper. The lines negotiate the surface in seemingly haphazard ways, reminiscent of well-traversed footpaths, trodden into the landscape. Hlobo exercises extraordinary control over rebellious and seemingly incompatible materials, weaving and stitching them together to create an aesthetic experience as rich in texture as the narratives implied by his titles.